The prevalence of diabetes has been growing and the goal of finding a cure or more effective treatment than current options has become increasingly important. Ongoing research since the turn of the century has shown that when diabetic mice are injected with bone marrow stem cells the stem cells were able to restore function to damaged tissues. The findings are exciting for both researchers and those who suffer from diabetes. It is hoped that continuing trials and research will eventually bring effective treatments to the public.
What is Diabetes?
Diabetes refers to a condition whereby the body can’t produce the hormone insulin or the body’s cells are resistant to its effects. For type 1 diabetics, their pancreas doesn’t produce the insulin required to keep blood sugar within its preferred, finely tuned range. In type 2 diabetes, insulin production generally occurs, albeit abnormally – but the body’s cells can’t properly use the hormone to regulate blood sugar. Diabetics may be insulin dependent, where they require daily doses of insulin to balance out their food consumption, or they may be able to manage their condition with diet and exercise. The complications of diabetes are, however, enormous. Diabetes has a high morbidity, with complications ranging from circulatory problems, nerve problems and heart disease to blindness. In addition, the daily challenge of monitoring lifestyle and taking insulin when required can be mentally and physically exhausting for many diabetics.
Benefits of Stem Cells for Diabetes
Studies in both Canada and the United States found that when stem cells were injected into the bloodstream of diabetic mice, the stem cells found their way to the damaged pancreas, where they were able to prompt the growth of new cells. It’s thought that something in the bone marrow somehow activates the regeneration of cells. In one study, the symptoms of diabetes were reversed within two weeks of the mice receiving bone marrow stem cell injections. Their high blood sugar levels were reduced to almost normal values and their insulin levels were raised. Even more interesting was that the cell growth wasn’t from the injected cells themselves. Rather, the injected stem cells triggered the production of cells in the recipient’s own pancreas. The results were particularly fascinating to researchers also because when stem cells were injected in healthy, non diabetic mice, there was no change.
It’s almost as though the stem cells were ‘intelligent,’ in that they sought out the damaged tissue and triggered the new cell growth. Another benefit of using bone marrow stem cells is that they can be harvested from the patient’s own bone marrow, cultivated in the lab environment and then injected back into the patient, where they can travel to the damaged pancreas and stimulate healthy cell growth. This helps to avoid the problems associated with immunological rejection, where the recipient’s body recognizes the injected cells as foreign and launches an attack.
Because it literally takes decades of research and trials before a new drug is introduced to the public, it will be some time before this treatment would be available for diabetics, assuming that human trails are successful. Given both the short and long term complications of diabetes, however, the research still provides hope that we may one day find a cure for diabetes.